They are the touchstones of the game’s modern era – Roger and Rafa – and they are together again in the semifinals on Rod Laver Arena tonight.
To add to the historic, even gladiatorial, feel of the their clash, living legend Rod Laver will surely be watching from the president’s box, adding more lustre to an already awesome occasion.
Following a hard-fought fightback from a one-set deficit to defeat a bludgeoning-the-ball Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals on Tuesday night, Nadal used the word “special” several times in discussing the impending 27th encounter with Federer.
The numbers in their rivalry, which began in Miami in 2004, all favour the man from Majorca. Nadal leads the head-to-head 17-9 and their Grand Slam event match-ups 7-2.
The latter figures are somewhat inflated by five victories on Nadal’s beloved terre battue at Roland Garros.
Federer is on a 25-match winning streak dating back to a wrenching (two match points lost) defeat to Novak Djokovic in last year’s US Open semifinals. All those wins certainly help him but maybe they have not done as much for him as just two immaculate sets – the third and fourth versus Berdych – have done for Nadal’s self doubts.
There had been much talk about his dwindling motivation toward the end of 2011, especially after six losses in a row to Novak Djokovic. But the way he responded to the serious threat posed by Berdych had to be inspirational for him.
Similarly, Federer could hardly have been more impressive than in his rising-to-the-occasion performances in his past two rounds against precocious teenager Bernard Tomic and heavy-hitting Juan Martin del Potro.
Even Rod Laver remarked that Federer does not seem to be mis-hitting the ball off the frame as often as in the past. “He looks to be playing confidently,” said the ever-astute `Rocket’. “That’s an important thing for Roger. If his confidence is there, all of a sudden his first serve works. He’s maybe just that little notch quicker doing all the shots.”
Examining their head-to-head, the point could be made that Federer has not beaten Nadal, when there were not mitigating factors, since 2007. Three fairly recent Federer wins – at the 2011 Tour Finals (Nadal in a year-end funk), at the 2010 Tour Finals (fatigue after a three-hour semifinal with Murray) and Madrid 2009 (fatigue after a four-hour semifinal with Djokovic) – all involved a Nadal lacking motivation and/or fitness.
Seldom, even in Laver’s 1960s heyday, has there been a groundstroke dynamic between great players so crucial to the outcome as Nadal’s left-handed, wickedly spun forehand cross-court into Federer’s more vulnerable single-handed backhand.
Federer has often rued the fact that Nadal is a southpaw and has an action on the ball that makes life miserable for him.
That is now well-imbedded in his head, and the main reason Nadal is the pick to win.
In the women’s semifinals, Kim Clijsters, after saving four match points last Sunday versus Li Na, has an air of destiny about her that she should ride to victory over Victoria Azarenka.
As well as Maria Sharapova has played at this year’s Aussie Open, Petra Kvitova’s ability to end points pre-emptively should allow her to follow up her 6-3 6-4 victory in last year’s Wimbledon final with a win over the statuesque Russian with the excitable vocal cords.